Lightning rookie Brett Connolly ascended to the ranks of the NHL rather quickly, and he won’t be going anywhere else nearly as soon.
Tampa Bay General Manager Steve Yzerman’s decision came down late Tuesday night following Connolly’s ninth career NHL game. Connolly could only have played nine NHL games without the clock starting to tick on his three-year, entry-level contract.
Yzerman confirmed the news that the 19-year-old forward will remain with the club—presumably for the rest of the season—following a 4-3 victory over Buffalo.
“My meeting with Mr. Yzerman was nerve-wracking because obviously I wanted to stay here,” Connolly said. “But it was nice to finally hear those positive words. He told me I have earned my opportunities and that I need to keep earning them. He said he expects me to be a better player at the end of the year than I am now and that this team needs that to accomplish our goals. And that’s what’s most important, accomplishing our team goals.”
After a strong showing in the team’s preseason schedule in which he led the team with three goals and tied both Steven Stamkos and Pavel Kubina for the club lead with five total points, Connolly began to show he was ready to compete at the NHL level.
“We felt that he’d learn more about the details of the game here with us than with his junior team,” Lightning head coach Guy Boucher said. “I am not afraid to put him on the ice. That is a testament to what he has done to this point.”
Through nine games this season, Connolly has recorded a pair of assists, and more impressively, is tied with Victor Hedman for team-best in the plus/minus category, with +5.
Despite being selected with the sixth overall pick as an 18-year-old just 16 months ago, he looked more the part of an NHL player who belongs once the regular season started, playing on a line alongside Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. At times when he was off the ice, Connolly would often consult his two linemates, as well as captain Vincent Lecavalier, about where to be and what to do in certain situations as he made a proactive attempt to learn as much as he could, while taking in any suggestions.
“The older guys have been a huge help to me from the day training camp started,” Connolly added. “Vinny, Marty and Stammer have worked with me on and off the ice from the time the preseason started. They have really helped get me here today.”
While the trio of Lightning forwards served as a great asset to Connolly’s development, there was also work he knew had to be done on his own part in order to even have a shot at making the team out of training camp, which upon his arrival, seemed improbable.
After appearing in just 16 games in 2009-10, Connolly arrived at Lightning training camp as highly-touted prospect, but immediately looked out of place. He appeared in one exhibition game prior to being sent back to his junior club, the Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League.
Over the summer, though, Connolly said he worked diligently in the gym to build up his strength and also focused on improving his skating ability. The result, in addition to being a drastic contrast, was one in which head coach Guy Boucher could only characterize as “night and day.”
The vast improvement in Connolly’s game has already been evident in his willingness to drive to the net without being intimidated by some of the league’s bigger and stronger players. He also has helped the team by fighting for pucks in tough areas and being a reliable defender.
“I think I understood this summer that I needed to get stronger and make a big lifestyle commitment to the game if I wanted to play at this level,” Connolly said. “I know I have a long way to go from that standpoint, but I feel good about where things are going.”
For both the Lightning and Connolly, the sentiment couldn’t be more mutual.